The politics of calm

Colin Greer
5 June 2006

Once upon a time, progressives in America believed in the politics of protest. Today, they seem more concerned with whether protest will discredit them in the eyes of a mythical mainstream public.

Rather than risk being marginalised for taking a strong stance against the right, progressives now espouse "safe" positions in order to appease what they believe (in the face of evidence) to be the majority of Americans. They define this imaginary mainstream public by its disdain for radical views and direct action, and retreat from both in the vain hope that such caution will bring political reward.

There is evidence of this new progressive preference for a "politics of calm" in the contrast between two recent responses to major political attacks on civil rights in America.

Colin Greer is president of the New World Foundation in New York. Among his books is A Call to Character (HarperCollins, 1995)

Also by Colin Greer on openDemocracy:

"How the Democratrs can win: an interview" (December 2004)

"A new majority for the American left" (December 2005)

In May 2006, millions of immigrants took to the streets in spectacular protest over legislation that threatens the livelihood and mobility of 12 million undocumented immigrants across the United States. At the same time, a fierce conservative campaign against the reproductive rights of women – beginning with a ban on abortion in the state of South Dakota and pointing towards a supreme-court case challenging the rights of women to seek abortion nationwide – has been met with relative silence from women's groups, young people, and progressives in general.

Advocates of progressive issues, and abortion in particular, fear being maligned by protest. Immigrants do not.

There are two reasons for this.

First, progressives are trying to live down a reputation for being violent that has attached itself to them since the late 1960s. Protests at the World Trade Organisation summit in Seattle in November 1999 were a public-relations disaster. Skirmishes around the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas meeting in Florida in November 2003 made things worse. Fights with New York police during the Republican convention in 2004 reinforced progressives' fear and caution about their public image. (The fact that police usually instigated whatever violence occurred on these occasions was ignored.)

Second, the many public setbacks progressives have suffered in the past decade have had the effect of shifting their priorities towards consensus-seeking and keeping up appearances. The attacks of 11 September 2001 exacerbated fear of dissent and direct action. Later, when massive protests against the war in Iraq in 2002 were completely ignored, activists felt worn out. It's the most benign repression. The right has been so successful at discrediting progressive positions that – even among progressives themselves – strong defence of values like peace, social justice, and reproductive rights is increasingly regarded as frivolous or unstrategic. This is the causal nexus of the politics of calm.

Undocumented immigrants are not affected by this recent history. They do not fear being marginalised, because they are already excluded. For cultural and legal reasons, belonging to the mainstream is not an option. In their campaign, immigrants rose swiftly from the base and were unapologetic and bold in their call for civil rights. A national movement was born of many local efforts.

The experience of abortion activism is different. In the 1960s and 1970s abortion-rights campaigners rode a tidal wave of progressive politics which, over the years, transformed itself into professional advocacy organisations. The national women's and reproductive-rights organisations established as a result have a number of defects: they often have no local presence, they sometimes engage in direct competition with local groups for funding, they focus on the judicial process and thus favour a "calm" approach over protest, and they tend to argue from the standpoint of protecting an established law rather than of moral struggle.

This experience is emblematic of what has happened with a whole range of civil-rights issues in the United States. The original base has been cut off by professional advocacy organisations. Meanwhile, the right has built its own base, which is activist-oriented, risk-taking, and has a strategic long-term focus.

The power of pro-choice women on the abortion issue could be as great as the power of men in the National Rifle Association. Men with guns tend to vote pro-gun across all other issues. But pro-choice women don't do the same on abortion. In the current struggle around abortion, women are generally characterised as pro-choice in the consumer sense, rather than as pro-choice in the sense of liberal, human-rights concern for the privacy and emancipation of women.

A problem here, as in other areas, is that the memory of the experience of the older generation is missing. This boomer conundrum is reflected in a progressive paralysis on a range of issues, including the war in Iraq. Rather than risk being branded as radicals with no claim to intellectual legitimacy, the fashion among many outspoken progressive leaders is to quieten the rhetoric.

The editor of the wildly popular political blog Daily Kos, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, and MyDD's Jerome Armstrong are among those who err on the side of calm in their boldly-titled book, Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics. Armstrong & Moulitsas argue that Democratic Party supporters must stick together at all costs in the interests of winning elections.

Such views bankrupt progressives of a moral imperative at the very time when opinion polls on more or less every social issue – schools, healthcare, and abortion, for example – show the public to be more progressive than the mythical mainstream is believed to be. Armstrong & Moulitsas, and many others, are demonstrating a lack of confidence in progressive politics by running from the extremes and seeking flawed solutions to fit a fictive grouping.

Act, don't wait

What is happening on the left mirrors what is happening in politics across America. The Bush administration repeatedly lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and bungled rescue operations with fatal results during hurricane Katrina. Yet the prevalent public response in both cases was to "pull together" in patriotic support of political leaders. It's not just the progressive position people lack confidence in – it's in democracy itself. The result of this syndrome is an adulterated democracy that is basically a competition about who can soften up enough voters to squeeze out a modest majority.

Why are progressives not insisting that valuing a woman's life is a moral position? Why is no one asking about the contradiction between the pro-life politicians' supposed concern for unborn life, and on the other hand defence of the death penalty, bombing of countries, and gutting of social programmes for children growing up in poverty? There is plenty of moral ground to defend, aside from simply denying that abortion is some kind of over-the-counter contraception.

The very same people who are now anti-abortionists were the ones who upheld the pariah status of illegitimate children. It wasn't until abortion became legal that they relented on their attacks on unmarried mothers and began to invite them to give birth. If abortion is banned, who is to say that these children won't once again be rejected and their mothers disgraced? There has always been something illicit about the right's moral positioning. The true concern of many outspoken conservative politicians is to protect atavistic "family values" by idealising women in the home while seeking to restrict their economic freedom in society.

Women's groups aren't calling them on it. Instead they are now deeply invested in reframing the issue to avoid talking about poverty and women's rights. They downplay abortion in a "reproductive health" package that includes stem-cell research, fertility, and medicine in order to court the mythical mainstream. Just as other putative progressives downplay the urgency of eliminating poverty by calling for an economy that is "good for all".

Progressives should take note of the immigrant uprising (and of the theatrical Minuteman vigilantes who protest against them). Protests make news. The politics of spectacle are still as irresistible as they ever were. It's the only way to fight for space in the corporate media.

Moreover, it should be recalled that supreme-court decisions are reached on the political condition surrounding the time when the law is made, not simply on the law itself. This was certainly true at the height of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s, when public spectacle and direct action created conditions for momentous changes in the law. When the governor of Alabama resisted the end of racial segregation in public schools, the response of the movement was to act forcefully from the start – not to wait until the issue reached the supreme court. This is what progressives need to do now.

South Dakota's example

The choice of South Dakota as the site of a new attack on women's rights is a strategic one. It has a small, conservative population, and it's hard to protest there. The response from progressives must be equally strategic. If the right chooses a desert for their campaign then it's progressives' job to populate that desert with activists from around the country.

Imagine if colleges in nearby states sent students to South Dakota to protest the ban this summer. Perhaps it would be too late to change anything in South Dakota itself, but would make dissatisfaction visible and help challenge the idea of a moderate mainstream nationwide. It's crucial that the protests extend beyond the borders of South Dakota. What if every single woman delivering a valedictorian speech at a university this summer decided to dedicate it to reproductive rights?

Those who are flaring up against the ban most aggressively are a group of Native American women who are all running for local office with the stated goal of unseating an anti-abortion Republican or Democrat. One woman has even offered up reservation land for a new abortion clinic. Could this kind of movement wake progressives from their slumber? In any case, doing little "calmly" will not, and is simply not a sound political strategy.

In 1978, Proposition 13 in California put a 57% cap on property taxes. It had severe consequences for minorities and the poor. In the beginning it looked too extreme to pass, but it became a catalyst for the mobilisation of the conservative right we know today. It was a bold and tactical use of legislation; the kind of thing the Democratic Party shrinks from. Anyone who thinks the clock of change can't run backwards need only look at John McCain on creationism, Bill Clinton on welfare reform – not to mention just about anybody with a public platform on race and affirmative action.

What if Democrats decided to bridge the divide between immigrants and American workers by proposing legislation that both provided a route to amnesty or citizenship and at the same time doubled or tripled the minimum wage for workers and immigrants? (Higher pay for "dirty work" would likely reduce the unlikelihood of Americans to do it). If they were firm in their principles it would serve as a rallying-call to those voters who constitute the real base of the party: trade unionists, immigrants, African-Americans, the working poor. A law can still be worth proposing even if it is not passed.

Jonathan Rauch argues in the Atlantic Monthly that America needs a centrist like Ariel Sharon or Junichiro Koizumi to capture a broad majority of voters. But the centre is not a fixed point in politics. It must be located somewhere between extremes. These days the only extreme in American politics is on the right. Presenting the Democratic Party as another extreme is simply a false representation. Democrats are already busily chasing the centre through the politics of calm. I can only hope the party grows the strategic imagination to believe that voters are drawn to strong principles on social and economic justice.

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